Illustrator/artist Fred Carlson talks about his journeys in the art and music, the blues and the impact of art & music

"Art and music affect people emotionally, and in evaluating socio-cultural movements and change emotion almost always trumps rationality. Truth comes from fact and policy results (rational argumentation) but also truth comes from human feelings that come out in song and art (emotional argumentation). In every day life, people act on their emotional levels most of the time, thus art and music are important to this reality."

Fred Carlson: Crossroads of Art & Music

Fred Carlson grew up in rural Connecticut and came to Pittsburgh in 1973 to attend Carnegie Mellon University graduating in 1977 with a degree in Design. He drew his first paying free-lance commissions for The Carnegie magazine while still a student 43 years ago. Fred has been a self-employed free-lancer for 37 years. He is one of the most well-known artist/illustrators in the mid-Atlantic market having completed works as large as room-sized murals and as small as one of his 400 music packaging covers. His awards have included two acceptances into the NY Society of Illustrators Annual Exhibition. Recent nationally recognized assignments have included a DVD cover series for Guitar Workshop of famous blues guitarists Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Son House, Bukka White, Lead Belly, Blind Willie Johnson, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Charley Patton. Other nationally recognized clients have included: NY Times, SONY Music, BMG/RCA/County, Koppers Corp, Westinghouse, WQED, Saturday Evening Post, Cable in the Classroom, Shanachie Recordings, Yankee, PNC Bank, Home Depot, National Science Foundation, Boy Scouts, AMERICA Magazine, Phillips-Exeter Academy, Dartmouth, and Carnegie Mellon.

(Photo: Fred Carlson finishing Muddy Waters illustration in his studio)

Fred taught Advanced Illustration to seniors in the Illustration Program at Carnegie Mellon University for 14 years. He has lectured widely on his work both as an independent artist and in his roles as Graphic Artists Guild (GAG) President 1991-1993 and Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators (PSI) President from 2000 to 2004. In 2003, Fred was a Speaker at the ICON3 National Illustration Conference in Philadelphia. He currently serves PSI as Treasurer and New Member Contact. Fred’s nature illustration is permanently installed at the Smithsonian/National Zoo in Washington DC, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and Moraine State Park Jennings Education Center. A retrospective exhibition including 85 works of his scientific illustration was shown in 2009 at the Moench Hall Gallery on the campus of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Terre Haute, Indiana. Fred also co-chaired the ground breaking 3-way collaborative show “Fission of Form” exhibited at the Panza Gallery August-October 2009 in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Society of Sculptors and the Pittsburgh Poets. In 2013, he chaired the large PSI exhibition “Art for a Hire Purpose” at the AIP Gallery in downtown Pittsburgh. He also recently completed two children’s book projects, “The Christmas Book of Hope” and “The Little Book of Hope.” Fred exhibited his Bill Monroe American Traveler CD cover for two years at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, KY. His CD cover Stop & Listen for the Mississippi Sheiks was recently purchased for permanent display since May, 2015 at the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame Museum in Memphis, TN.


Interview by Michael Limnios                        Artworks © by Fred Carlson

How has the art and music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Art and music IS the world journey I have taken. I draw pictures for a living and play music as a serious avocation. All my other explorations, whether mental, spiritual or physical, all feed into this journey.

What were the reasons that you started artistic researches? Where does your creative drive come from?

I was drawing since I was 2 or 3 years old. My mom says I could always be found drawing by myself not getting into (too much) trouble! Drawing is an escape from what’s around you. The act of drawing what’s around you invites you to change what is there. Mankind always works like this; we are always changing the pictures on the walls because we get bored. The creative impulse is the desire to change what’s going on around us. I guess that’s what has driven my life in illustration. I first chose illustration as a career by going to a professional university, Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, for graphic design. Then I made illustration a career choice from among many disciplines within the graphic arts. I was good enough to be hired as an in-house studio illustrator before I graduated from college, and 4 years later started free-lancing full time in 1980.

Regarding other parts of my creative drive, I started playing guitar when I was 10, so I have 55 years of doing that going on in my life too. I play bluegrass flat-picking, blues on acoustic and electric guitars, jazz and fusion, original rock, chicken pickin’ country, playing hymns on guitar in church, and I play mandolin, frailing banjo, and bass too and get lots of appreciation for my playing from friends and audiences where I play. But I made the conscious decision in my mid-20s that music performing was a life style choice that did not fit in with being a professional free-lance illustrator so all my playing since the early 1980s has been avocational; professional and well-done, but not for money or steady gigs.

"You have to practice and perform, constantly. You can’t talk about it. You can’t make it too academic. You can’t just fake it and not practice your craft always. In my art/illustration career, this attitude goes back to my first assignments in college in 1974, or 46 years ago. I did portraits for museum publications that started my illustration career and now I still do portraits (and other things!) You have to solve the visual problem, you can’t fake it." (Artworks © by Fred Carlson)

What are the lines that connect: visual art and music? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

I look at creating art and music as the basic human desire to change things around them. When music began being packaged commercially (sheet music in the latter 1800s, recorded music after 1920) there was always a connection between music and art in the marketing of the sounds. There is an organic connection between the music, the text, the type, and the images in the sale of commercial music. Regarding my own desire to be a part of this historic lineage, I just jumped right into the flow of all this and tried to create images and designs that honor the original music and evoke the mood, technique, and power of the sounds. Commercialization always changes the dynamic of art and music and over the last 100 years we’ve seen it closer together than ever. One caveat is that the introduction of streaming music sales and mp3s has severed the relationship of packaging and music so that is still being worked out in the marketplace and the use of illustration in music is more of a boutique operation these days.

It helps that in my studio I listen to LPs on turntable, CDs, cassettes, streaming services, and the radio. So all my acquired music over the years gets equal attention, as it should. When I have VERY pressing deadlines, I like to pull out groups of LPs by a certain artist and play them side after side without thinking just to relive great sounds. This helps me work through very demanding deadlines. So I’d say that music enlivens my mood and physical focus. When I’m working on a particular musical personality of course I’ll listen to a lot of their material—maybe I’ll be influenced toward a particular color or design idea, or not. But I want to be there when it happens!

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?                       (Photo: Fred Carlson at his latest exhibition January 2020)

Highlights and moments-Assignments offer the biggest challenge to an illustrator working in this field. Over the past 40+ years my illustrations have been my life so I offer these 5 highlight experiences to enjoy and share:

  1. Getting the commission to illustrate the cover of the BMG/County re-issue of Bill Monroe instrumentals “American Traveler”. This is one of my career highlights.
  2. Getting the commission to illustrate the cover of the DVD “The Slide Guitar of Muddy Waters” for Guitar Workshop.
  3. Getting the commission to illustrate the cover of the Sony/Copper Creek re-issue of “Foggy Mountain Banjo” by Flatt and Scruggs.
  4. Getting the commission to illustrate the DVD cover of “The Guitar of Robert Johnson” for Guitar Workshop. I understand there was a lot of jostling around as to who was going to be chosen to teach and produce this one and thus, who would get picked to do the cover.
  5. In 1988 I was chosen to illustrate the cover of an annual report for a large regional electric utility company. I found out that the design firm was also looking at my heroes Alan Cober, Franklin McMahon, and George Gaadt for this job. I was given the job, and I know it wasn’t because of a cheap price.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What do you learn about yourself from the blues?

I do not over-romanticize the past regarding music, especially roots and blues. Certainly everyone wishes they could go see a front porch show by Robert Johnson in 1936 or a house party played by Muddy Waters in Chicago in 1949. We have a lot of this music as our guide and it’s all great stuff. But I saw Muddy a number of times in the 1970s and that was great too. Today I can be blown away by any number of current guitarists, harpists, pianists, and vocalists too numerous to name here. I like to support the living, whether artists or musicians. Music and art are not static statues to be frozen in time.

As an illustrator, I have a lonely workplace (by myself!) and often an unsupported career (there are droughts in creative work!). I wouldn’t call my life oppressed or terrible but there are challenges socially and financially that one has to work through. I’ve been able to navigate these rocky times for over 4 decades and music has helped me get through. The ‘hard times’ theme of blues music relate to me, as they do many, many fans. Blues music and its 12-bar format offers a “variation-on-a-theme” that I find creatively inspiring and physically moving.                     (Artworks © by Fred Carlson)

"Art and music IS the world journey I have taken. I draw pictures for a living and play music as a serious avocation. All my other explorations, whether mental, spiritual or physical, all feed into this journey."

You have a very interesting project titled "Nature". What do you think the major changes will be in our world?

Remember I work for a number of clients and different niche markets. To survive, illustrators need to work for a wide spectrum of clients. Music projects and commissioned music posters are the largest group of my clients these days but I’ve also worked for a large number of magazines, websites, newspapers, corporations, ad agencies, and design firms.   

“Nature” is a category of illustration work on my website. This site holds my illustration portfolio that art buyers can review before giving me assignments. The other categories on the website are: Portraits, Music, Corporate, Nature and Hand Lettering. I divide the categories apart so that art directors and clients can go to the categories they are searching for within my group of samples. The “Nature” pieces are both assignments and personal pieces. My personal pieces in this section are a reflective view on what I see around me in interesting places, and of animals I find particularly fascinating, especially texturally. I do a lot of work for clients who have me illustrate natural world subjects for educational panels that appear in museums, zoos, and nature centers.

I think major changes relating to the environment that we currently are afraid of will be met by human ingenuity and technology that we cannot even imagine yet, as this has happened throughout human history. I am not a pessimist regarding the natural world.

What touched (emotionally) you from Robert Johnson? What would you like to ask Sonny Boy Williamson?

Robert Johnson was a revolutionary technician on the guitar fretboard and a distinguished, soulful vocalist. If he had worked in a major city and honed his talent with other players during his era he would have been a gigantic public name in music. But even more, his compositions have traveled to this day. As it stands, his musical output of less than 30 recorded songs and less than 20,000 records sold during his short career has influenced music, not through pop culture, but through the players that connected with this urgency and technical prowess. There were plenty of influences that Robert had and they are also great (Peetie Wheetstraw, Son House, Lonnie Johnson, Scrapper Blackwell, Robert Junior Lockwood, e.g.), but Robert’s originality and drive made him stand out.

Ask around. Nobody except other guitarists and blues singers know who Robert Johnson is, but the Robert Johnson CD boxed set from 1991, where Eric Clapton and Keith Richards wrote forwards in the book, has sold millions of copies. What touched me from Robert Johnson originally in my life was, as a young person, figuring out some of his tunings and slide methods myself, then being mystified by the legends surrounding him. Later on a trip to Mississippi in 2015, I stopped by the Little Zion Methodist Baptist Church where he is buried north of Greenwood Mississippi. The written message from Robert from his deathbed reads “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem. I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He will call me from the Grave.” And this is inscribed on his gravestone from the note kept by his sister, Carrie H. Thompson. He knew where he had been, knew where he was going, and in the end the legends fell away and the simplicity and drive of his music rebuilt itself in my mind apart from the legends and devil’s bargain stuff.

Another terrific “personal touching” from Robert Johnson was listening to “Dust My Broom”-the original 78rpm record on Paramount, upstairs at Jerry’s Records in Pittsburgh with my illustrator pal Joseph Daniel Fiedler, on a vintage-responsive 78rpm turntable at noon before Christmas 2012. Jerry Weber, the owner, had an original copy of the 78 record (it had been acquired by Jerry through his used record business) and he was doing public “listens” of the song for interested fans at appointed times. Hearing the song as originally played back in the late 1930s gave us all a new appreciation of Robert’s playing, singing, and spirit. It was daytime in Pittsburgh when we walked out of the record store but it was midnight in our souls.

What would I ask Sonny Boy Williamson? Possibly more details about the KFFA Helena, Arkansas years especially Joe Willie Wilkins’ guitar and amp pointers! (Chris Strachwitz probably already knows all this!)…and maybe who did his dental work?

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the art and music?

You have to practice and perform, constantly. You can’t talk about it. You can’t make it too academic. You can’t just fake it and not practice your craft always. In my art/illustration career, this attitude goes back to my first assignments in college in 1974, or 46 years ago. I did portraits for museum publications that started my illustration career and now I still do portraits (and other things!) You have to solve the visual problem, you can’t fake it. The buyer or art director needs to be moved, each and every time they open up your work and look at it. You have to find the x-factor in your work that makes it desirable to others. You are not just pleasing yourself. There’s an audience out there in the illustration world, and there’s an audience out there in the musical world. Another important lesson in both art and music is that in a particular piece, a drawing or a song, there’s only room for a couple of highlights, or crescendos, or major statements. You have to maintain simplicity of presentation or else the audience doesn’t get it.

"I was drawing since I was 2 or 3 years old. My mom says I could always be found drawing by myself not getting into (too much) trouble! Drawing is an escape from what’s around you. The act of drawing what’s around you invites you to change what is there. Mankind always works like this; we are always changing the pictures on the walls because we get bored." (Artworks © by Fred Carlson)

What is the impact of art and music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Art and music affect people emotionally, and in evaluating socio-cultural movements and change emotion almost always trumps rationality. Truth comes from fact and policy results (rational argumentation) but also truth comes from human feelings that come out in song and art (emotional argumentation). In every day life, people act on their emotional levels most of the time, thus art and music are important to this reality. But it’s important to NOT over-intellectualize genres of music like roots and blues music. Looking at the reasons this music even existed was to make people feel better and have a good time! Not too many social implications for titles like “Whoo Wee Baby”, “Roll Me Baby”, “Women and Money”, “She Moves Me”, and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”…plus, musicians like to make noise and attract attention!

How do I want my work to affect other people? I would like clients and buyers to value my work for its beauty and success in communicating a feeling of the times they portray. I always hope my work moves people who see it to investigate the various musicians I illustrate and buy their music and appreciate where they fit into the long history of musical traditions. I appreciate it when other artists are inspired by my craft, and I enjoy being in positions where such interplay is common (illustrator’s societies, e.g.).

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

There’s a couple for this one: being in the Chess recording studio July 11, 1951 in Chicago shortly after Little Walter and Muddy Waters first met and they recorded “She Moves Me” with Leonard Chess hitting a bass drum and one of the first of Walter’s electrified harp solos raging-a genesis of electric blues: fierce, undiluted, unrelenting, and indicative of so much to come. Then it would be fun partying on Maxwell Street with a 36-year old Muddy and a 21-year old Little Walter, if you survived!

I’d also love to have been a fly on the wall at the Tulane Hotel in Nashville, December 1945 when Bill Monroe auditioned Earl Scruggs to join he, Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise and Howard Watts in the Blue Grass Boys creating an entirely new musical genre (bluegrass) virtually overnight. “I never heard anything like that before,” said the usually composed Monroe.

With the right imagination, time travel is possible every time someone looks at one of my posters or music covers or listens to the music without distraction.

Carlson Studio - Home            Fred Carlson - Site

(Photos: Bill Monroe “American Traveler” CD cover, Artworks © by Fred Carlson / Fred Carlson playing electric rock and blues at an outdoors pool party summer 2015)

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